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Woes of the True Policemanby Roberto Bolano
Unlike most writers, for whom each work of fiction is a realm only unto itself, Roberto Bolaño freely shared characters, settings, storylines, and major themes throughout his novels and short stories. So it is with Woes of the True Policeman, a novel begun by the late Chilean in the 1980s and left unfinished at the time of his death in 2003. First published in his native Spanish in 2011, Woes of the True Policeman is a well-polished, if incomplete, effort. Bolaño's widow, Carolina López, penned the brief yet essential editorial note that accompanies the text, explaining the novel's provenance, its posthumous ordering, and the source files from which it was collected.
Woes of the True Policeman begins, in fine Bolaño fashion, with an exposition on the sexual classifications of literature and their respective practitioners. These pronouncements on the proclivities of a panoply of poets (including Cernuda, Guillén, Montale, Vallejo, Cardenal, Parra, and many others) foreshadow a theme that sets in motion the arc of the novel's first two parts ("The Fall of the Berlin Wall" and "Amalfitano and Padilla"). Óscar Amalfitano, well known to any Bolaño reader from his role in the epic 2666, figures prominently into Woes's plot. A literature (and sometimes philosophy) professor at the University of Barcelona, Amalfitano and his daughter Rosa (detailed in the third section of Woes) are well adapted to their life in the Spanish metropolis, but a scandalous revelation soon forces him from his post and them from the European continent. Santa Teresa, 2666's fictionalized approximation of the imperiled and bloody Ciudad Juárez, becomes their new home, with Amalfitano taking on a teaching post at the city's university.
Small details of Amalfitano's life differ from his earlier appearance in 2666 (his late wife's name is different, the obsession with geometry seems absent, etc.), but his fascination with the enigmatic French/German novelist Benno von Archimboldi remains. Other minor characters, including Amalfitano's dean (Horacio Guerra), make a reappearance, setting portions of Woes within the narrative context more fully explored in 2666. Nearly all of Woes seems like it could well have been composed of chapters excised from the larger tome (as they were both actively worked on during the years preceding Bolaño's passing), yet the indications are clear that this was to be a separate, if obviously not unrelated, novel.
As Bolaño reimagined and reused his characters, they sometimes took slightly different forms depending on the work in which they appear. Whereas J.M.G. Arcimboldi appears briefly in The Savage Detectives as a Frenchman, throughout 2666 he is referred to as Benno von Archimboldi, a Prussian writer. Much like the quest in The Savage Detectives to discover the seemingly undiscoverable poetry of Cesárea Tinajero, Arcimboldi's own mysterious life and literary output becomes the focus for Amalfitano. Woes's fourth section, "J.M.G. Arcimboldi," is a Nazi Literature in the Americas-style foray into the works of Arcimboldi (differing from those listed in 2666), wherein Amalfitano explores not only his novels, poetry, and other writings but also his friendships (Queneau, Perec, etc.), enemies, hobbies (magic!), and epistolary correspondences.
The novel's final part, "Killers of Sonora," seems to presage the thousands of heinous murders (or feminicidios) that play such a crucial role in 2666. This portion of the book seems to be the section Bolaño was likely reworking before he succumbed to liver failure, and follows a group of policemen and Mexican elites who come to suspect that Amalfitano may have some nefarious involvement in a disappearance and murder.
Woes of the True Policeman features all of the usual elements that have made Bolaño's works so distinctive: ominous prose, obscure poets, dark forebodings, ribald humor, perfidious characters, and the ever-blurry line between fiction and reality (Vila-Matas, Marías, Marsé, Goytisolo, Vargas Llosa, and others are all cast in a proposed biopic about Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi). The intertextuality of Bolaño's fiction makes this novel a requisite read for anyone compelled to delve into the ancillary worlds established by his two masterworks, The Savage Detectives and 2666. Only a number of thorough, immersive readings of Bolaño's many books would allow for a full conception of the shared and sometimes contrasting details and characters he developed so well. One excerpt in Woes, for example, appeared previously, almost verbatim, as the short story "Another Russian Tale" (from The Return) and another borrows portions from Distant Star.
With scant material remaining that has yet to be translated, the veritable wealth of Bolaño's oeuvre has been all but exhausted. The past decade has seen the Chilean author go from relatively obscure, unknown novelist, poet, and short story writer (amongst English-speaking audiences, that is) to perhaps one of the most celebrated figures in literary translation. While Woes of the True Policeman may have assumed a slightly different form had its completion been seen through, it will remain a single yet luminous star in the constellation Bolaño.
They learned that a book was a labyrinth and a desert. That there was nothing more important than ceaseless reading and traveling, perhaps one and the same thing. That when books were read, writers were released from the souls of stones, which is where they went to live after they died, and they moved into the souls of readers as if into a soft prison cell, a cell that later swelled or burst. That all writing systems are frauds. That true poetry resides between the abyss and misfortune and that the grand highway of selfless acts, of the elegance of eyes and the fate of Marcabrú, passes near its abode. That the main lesson of literature was courage, a rare courage like a stone well in the middle of a lake district, like a whirlwind and a mirror. That reading wasn't more comfortable than writing. That by reading one learned to question and remember. That memory was love.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
Begun in the 1980s and worked on until the authors death in 2003, Woes of the True Policeman is Roberto Bolaños last, unfinished novel.
The novel follows Óscar Amalfitano—an exiled Chilean university professor and widower—through the maze of his revolutionary past, his relationship with his teenage daughter, Rosa, his passion for a former student, and his retreat from scandal in Barcelona.
Forced to leave Barcelona for Santa Teresa, a Mexican city close to the U.S. border where women are being killed in unprecedented numbers, Amalfitano soon begins an affair with Castillo, a young forger of Larry Rivers paintings. Meanwhile, Rosa, Amalfitanos daughter, engages in her own epistolary romance with a basketball player from Barcelona, while still trying to cope with her mothers early death and her fathers secrets. After finding Castillo in bed with her father, Rosa is forced to confront her own crisis. What follows is an intimate police investigation of Amalfitano that involves a series of dark twists, culminating in a finale full of euphoria and heartbreak.
Featuring characters and stories from his other books, Woes of the True Policeman invites the reader more than ever into the world of Roberto Bolaño. It is an exciting, kaleidoscopic novel, lyrical and intense, yet darkly humorous. Exploring the roots of memory and the limits of art, Woes of the True Policeman marks the culmination of one of the great careers of world literature.
"In his incomplete final novel, BolaÃ‛Ã‚Â±o (2666) begins with Amalfitano, a 50-year-old philosophy professor at the University of Barcelona, who loses his position after he's accused of having an affair with one of his male students. With his adolescent daughter, Rosa, he decides to move to Santa Teresa, a Mexican border town, where he finds a new teaching position at the local university. There he becomes friendly with an artist named Castillo, who makes a living forging Larry Rivers paintings to sell to gullible Texan art lovers. From here, the narrative splinters as BolaÃ‛Ã‚Â±o details Rosa's tours of Santa Teresa, itemizes the literary career of the novelist J.M.G. Arcimboldi, and delves into the backstory of the Santa Teresa detective charged with shadowing Amalfitano. Throughout, the professor maintains a correspondence with his former lover, Padilla, who in time confesses that he has AIDS. Began in the 1980s, this novel never really comes together to form a cohesive whole. Dedicated to both Manuel Puig and Philip K. Dick, the book veers close to the latter's habitual sense of dislocation. It may be best enjoyed by fans of the late author's work who appreciate his iconoclastic takes on literary standard-bearers. (Nov.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Author of The Savage Detectives and 2666
Crushed by a devastating scandal, university professor Óscar Amalfitano flees Barcelona for Santa Teresa—a Mexican city close to the U.S. border, where women are being killed in staggering numbers. There, Amalfitano begins an affair with Castillo, a young forger of Larry Rivers paintings, while his daughter, Rosa, reeling from the weight of his secrets, seeks solace in a romance of her own. Yet when she finds her father in bed with Castillo, Rosa is confronted with the full force of her crisis.
What follows is an intimate police investigation of Amalfitano, leading to a finale of euphoria and heartbreak. Featuring characters and stories from The Savage Detectives and 2666, Roberto Bolaño's Woes of the True Policeman mines the depths of art, memory, and desire—and marks the culmination of one of the great careers of world literature.
Begun in the 1980s and worked on until the authors death in 2003, Woes of the True Policeman is Roberto Bolaños last, unfinished, novel.
The novel follows Amalfitano—exiled Chilean university professor and widower with a teenage daughter—as his political disillusionment and love of poetry lead to the scandal that will force him to flee from Barcelona and take him to Santa Teresa, Mexico. It is here, in this border town—haunted by dark tales of murdered women and populated by characters like Sorcha, who fought in the Andalusia Blue Division in the Spanish Civil War, and Castillo, who makes his living selling his forgeries of Larry Rivers paintings to wealthy Texans—that Amalfitano meets Arcimboldi, a magician and writer whose work highlights the provisional and fragile nature of literature and life.
Woes of the True Policeman is an exciting, kaleidoscopic novel, lyrical and intense yet darkly humorous. Exploring the roots of memory and the limits of art, it marks the culmination of one of the great careers of world literature.
About the Author
Roberto Bolaño was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1953. He grew up in Chile and Mexico City, where he was a founder of the Infrarealist poetry movement. He is the author of The Savage Detectives, which received the Herralde Prize and the Rómulo Gallegos Prize, and 2666, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Bolaño died in Blanes, Spain, at the age of fifty.
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